||LEAD TRAVEL ARTICLE: EDMONTON JOURNAL, SATURDAY SEPT. 3RD, 2005
PHILIPPINES - THE NORTH - HAIR-PIN TURNS TO AN ANCIENT WORLD
I reach the bus station, in a Manila alleyway, with time to spare. I am the first customer in line for a ticket. Our driver is snoring over his wheel. By the 9am departure time, there are three others on board. Not a promising sign. In Asia, buses tend to leave when full. Yes, you can be lucky and pick up a few stragglers on the way, but don’t count on it.
The 9am bus becomes the 10am bus and we roll out of the yard with a healthier number of paid-up passengers. I have snagged two front seats just above the steps and spread out in an uninviting, proprietary manner. The freeway heading north is still under construction though tollbooths are very much in business. Bus boys use construction delays to yell out destinations and further exacerbate traffic chaos by offering enticing deals to fill empty seats.
I’m heading for Mountain province, in the north of Luzon Island, attracted by a promise of ancient rice terraces, hanging coffins, and hair raising switchbacks running over the spine of The Central Cordilleras. Baguio, at 1500 meters is the gateway to settlements of indigenous tribes, or Igorots.
Around noon we leave the freeway and begin climbing. A horse and buggy camouflaged under a stack of baskets, is struggling to the market. Afternoon fog rolls in. Roadside stall owners are wrapped in scarves, heavy jackets and toques. The airconditioning is now off.
Our driver slows down for his favourite food vendors: Deep-fried pork rinds; boiled corncobs; homemade coconut candies, and peanuts scooped from a bucket into newspaper cones He, of course, gets freebies for letting them onboard.
Baguio is a pretty university town and a perfect place to break my journey for a night. The cool climate is a magnet to Manila’s elite who have built mansions around Burnham Park where romantic students while away foggy afternoons in the privacy of swan-shaped peddle boats.
I leave my pack at a small Tudor-styled hotel that reminds me of an English pub and head to The Kusima ni Ima, a restaurant famed for “traditional fare.” The deep-fried frogs are small, pond-sized, and thankfully headless. A pair of them lies prone on my plate, their gutted bellies now stuffed with ground pork. Even with the help of a vinegar dip it is tough to respond with the gusto expected by my hovering waitress.
The pig’s ear/liver combo arrives in a sizzling cast iron pan with a cup of rice on the side. This is considered the ultimate and, judging by a confident smirk on the face of my zealous server, has never failed to dazzle the diner. Boiling and fine dicing has removed the bristles and camouflaged the content. Only a slightly chewy consistency provides any clue that a one-eared porker might still be foraging in the countryside! A little more hot sauce and a couple of San Miguel beers to sluice it all down. “Mmmmm delicious.” Apparently satisfied with my response, she withdraws.
Dawn is breaking as the bus pulls out. The road from Baguio to Sagada is infamous. My fellow passengers are dressed for winter. Toques; fedoras; headscarves; belted coats; ski jackets; gloves and rubber boots. Mountain people are subdued compared to lowlanders. Their features are different too. Higher cheekbones. Rounder faces. Darker skin.
The driver is hunched over his ever-spinning wheel in deep concentration. Swirling fog temporarily obscures the sheer drop on both sides of the twisting narrow road. Earthmovers have partially cleared recent landslides as we creep under half-pipes of overhanging rock. No roadside memorials yet. Perhaps they don’t believe in them? Clumps of yellow Sunflowers and wild white Lillies brighten the countryside. Stepped paddy fields stretch way down to a river in the valley floor. My fellow passenger is about to throw up. I move to the back and feel queasy.
Six hours later, we shudder along the last piece of narrow rutted road and cross a single lane bridge into Sagada. Houses with corrugated iron roofs and tin walls are scattered among small gardens planted with fruit trees. We pass St Mary’s Episcopal church a fixture since 1905 - and stop at the head of the main street.
Sagadans are an independent lot. The last time a campaigning politician passed through, he was forced to deliver his message to an audience of one - an apologetic Mayor, decked out in shorts and a pair of thongs. It was planting season in the paddy fields and locals had better ways to spend their time.
Tourists come here to trek, chill out or visit coffins and caves. I choose The Olahbinian Guesthouse from the handful available. Pristine and spartan with a good view across a meadow to St Marys graveyard, at 16 bucks it's tough to complain.
The Episcopaleans may have a good handle on the population but some still like to be buried the old, animistic, way. A cartooned tourist map, the size of a mouse-pad, is filled with promise. “Big waterfall 2 1/2 hours” “Coffins in Lumiang Cave 30 minutes just follow path down to right ” “Look here for mushrooms in the forest.”
Getting lost in the patchwork of paddy fields is half the fun. I meet a jubilant, mud spattered, French hiker and follow his directions.
It is odd to struggle down a path, suitable only for a goat, and stumble on a bunch of coffins and a wooden chair dangling from the cliff face. Hey - why not end your days with an overview of the forest that provided so well in life. Others have chosen to be interred in caves with their pals.
A lucky shard of sunlight reveals a hidden entrance through a crack in the rock. Inside Lumiang cave, hundreds of coffins lay loosely stacked, one on top of another up the cavern wall. Some are crumbling with age. Others have animals carved into the lids and recent dates painted on the side.
The woods are sacred. Locals being “caught short,” will first apologise to the spirits with an “excuse me sir” before answering a call of nature.
That night, in front of a twinkling fire at the Log Cabin Restaurant, I share a meal of Chicken Adobo a local concoction cooked with soya sauce and vinegar with a resident Australian lady and her pouting hairdresser, summoned from Manila for a coiffure adjustment!
Getting from Sagada to Banahue is to be a 3-hour, bone shaking, bum-numbing, afternoon jeepney ride. Good. I can enjoy the Saturday morning market here and still get there in daylight.
Banahue is a collection of tin roofed buildings set in a valley surrounded by stone walled rice terraces. Looking up, is like being at centre stage in a vast Roman Colliseum. It is also a great base for visiting the UNESCO protected terraces of Batad and Hapao.
A teacher’s convention has filled most hotels. I settle for “marginal” digs with glorious red sheers framing the long window. At the helpful tourist office I hire a guide and a tricycle driver for tomorrow’s adventure.
The Kalinga, The Ifugao, Bontoc, Benguet and Tingguian peoples have cut and farmed tiny stepped paddy fields from sheer valley walls for over 2000 years. Here, land ownership is measured in square meters. Accumulation is forbidden by local law based on a simple credo for community survival: “You are not alone.”
At 5am dawn breaks. I am encapsulated, pretzel-like, in a motorbike’s sidecar built for a midget. The newly paved strip of highway rounds a corner to become a mass of impassable rubble. Corruption is part of Philipino life. According to Johnny, my guide, “The contractor submitted a photo of the finished portion then gleefully disappeared after a cheque arrived for the whole job”. We must walk the last two kilometers up to the saddle.
Batad lies 1400 meters below. An optimistically installed hydro line disappears into the valley of subsistence farmers, based on the fool theory: “Build it and they will hook-up”. So far no one has. We meet uniformed school kids hiking their way out with a week’s supply of rice and vegetables. They will stay in dormitories in Banahue until next weekend then make the return trek. A horse laden with backpacks is followed by a group of giggling young Koreans returning from a week of hiking.
The valley is indescribably beautiful. An amphitheatre of hand hewn, tiny, green, stone-stepped rice-paddies stacked from top to bottom, connected by an intricate irrigation system devised some 2000 years ago. Wild flowers line the steep pathway along which all supplies must be carried. One hour and 11 kms later we are close to the village. It is Sunday morning and rousing hymns ring out. Seven Christian denominations compete for congregations in a population of 750.
An old lady, bent from years of planting and harvesting, struggles down long wooden stairs. Her home is built on stilts for ventilation. Her flock of plump geese, chickens, and pigs scamper over for lunch. This is a magical place untouched by time TV and telephone and will remain so if the locals have their way.
Johnny adjusts the pace as we climb back up in the 40-degree midday sun. “We will rest here for a while.”
Later, at my hotel I count cash into two piles. We began the day at 5am. It is now 6.30 pm. In 13 1⁄2 hours we have driven 65 kms over hellish roads to take in the magical sunset at Hapao, stopping at villages along the way. “I want to see it all!” I have become firm friends with Johnny, who speaks impeccable English. A total of Can $40 includes well deserved - and gratefully received - tips.
I sleep well. Tomorrow will be an overnight bus trip back to Manila for the flight home.
IF YOU GO
Air Canada has flights routed via South Korea and often has specials. Philippine Airlines flies direct to Manila daily. Ask about their excellent hotel package in Manila.
The Philippines has had a bad rap in recent years. Bombings and kidnappings have caused foreign embassies to issue travel advisories that make a weekend in Bagdad sound like a dream getaway. Furthermore there were 4 typhoons during my 3-week visit.
However, the country is made up of 7000 islands stretching around 1900 km’s North to South and 700 km’s East to West. Most serious problems arise in Mindanao and The Sulu Archipelago - both in the far south where Abu Sayaff, a local terrorist group is believed to have ties with Al Quaida. This area should be avoided.
Manila has its own problems caused by poverty and extra caution should be paid against pickpockets, petty theft and other scams. Personally, I rode every form of public transport and walked through slum areas without incident however there is no need to use Manila as any more than a transit point.
I found the people everywhere to be incredibly caring and extremely helpful. How many Canadians put their children in the hands of Philipina nannies? How many have been tended in hospital by Philipina nurses? Warmth and laughter are national traits.
With strong US ties, most familiar chains exist in the major towns and cities. Chinese restaurants proliferate. Expect high standards of cleanliness. Bottled water is easily available.
Outside Manila accommodation is cheap, reliable, and generally clean by western standards. Expect to pay around C$20 for a 3 star hotel.
The bus system is great and very cheap with no price discrimination against westerners. Typhoons come and go. Roads get washed out. Plan to take twice as long to reach your destination and you won’t be disappointed.
OTHER WORTHWHILE SIGHTS IN THE NORTH:
The old UNESCO protected coastal town of Vigan is worth a few days because of its 19th century mansions and horse-drawn calesas which clip-clop timelessly along narrow cobbled streets.
Ex President Marcos is laid out for public viewing in Batac a few miles South of Loag, a city with a lively night-market and an airport with direct flights to/from Manila.
Northern beaches are empty of tourists and stunningly beautiful.
WRITER'S THOUGHTS: Would I go again? You bet - I’m booking!